‘Winning Time’ HBO: True story of Magic Johnson, Jerry Buss – Los Angeles Times

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In the summer of 1979, as President Carter lamented an American “crisis of confidence” and the National Basketball Assn. worried over declining attendance and TV ratings, two visionaries — rookie point guard Magic Johnson and new Lakers owner Jerry Buss — forged a marriage made in sporting heaven.

In the series premiere of “Binge Sesh,” author Jeff Pearlman joins hosts Matt Brennan and Kareem Maddox to discuss how a generational athletic talent and a born salesman came together to create the Showtime Lakers, the dynasty that defined a decade, birthed the modern NBA and inspired HBO’s new drama series “Winning Time.” Warning: This episode contains profanity.

[“Winning Time”clip: Nightclub performers: … ready for the promised land. It’s showtime. It’s showtime!

Jerry Buss character: I don’t know why basketball can’t feel like that.

Magic Johnson character: To me, Dr. Buss, it do.]

Matt Brennan: So, I don’t know if I told you this, but before I was a journalist, I was a historian. Which means when I’m doing my work as the TV editor at the L.A. Times, I kind of have a soft spot for period pieces. Which is kind of why “Winning Time,” this new HBO show about the ’80s L.A. Lakers, struck me as the perfect subject for a podcast. I mean, one, it’s set in our backyard. Two, it’s about this iconic NBA franchise. And, three, it’s about a transformative period in American life.

There’s just one problem.

Kareem Maddox: What’s that?

Brennan: I don’t know s— about basketball.

Maddox: Well, that’s why I’m here.

Brennan: Right? Exactly. You’re my basketball guy. Literally a basketball guy, as in a professional player.

Maddox: Exactly. Thanks for saying that. You’re my TV guy. And I’m glad that my decades of professional basketball experience have finally paid off.

Brennan: Glad you’re here. And I actually really do feel like the balance of our expertise is what is going to make this podcast fun to do.

Maddox: That’s how teams work. We’re a dream team.

Brennan: Like the Dream Team?

Maddox: I mean, I wish, but we’re close.

Brennan: OK, this is kind of perfect: TV expert, basketball expert, TV show about basketball. Now we’ll be able to join forces to explore really every aspect of the Showtime phenomenon, because, as we’re discovering, it isn’t just about what they brought to the on-court play. And it’s not just about the culture that they created and that embraced them. It’s about both those things together.

People both in L.A. and around the country are going to watch the show “Winning Time.” And they’re going to have all these questions. They’re going to Google things like: Who’s Jerry Buss? Who’s Claire Rothman? Why did the Showtime Lakers matter? How did the Laker Girls start? Why was Magic Johnson such a great point guard?

Three men hold a press conference before a yellow background

John C. Reilly as Jerry Buss, Quincy Isaiah as Magic Johnson and Jason Clarke as Jerry West in “Winning Time.”

(Warrick Page/HBO)

We can use the show as a jumping-off point to answer those questions.

I did actually, before we get started, want to ask you, though: You’re from L.A. What do the Showtime Lakers mean to you?

Maddox: So was born a Lakers fan, and I grew up in the ’90s, so I heard a lot about Showtime and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson, and still I think I took for granted how much these Lakers teams did for, yes, the Lakers franchise, but also the NBA as a whole. Now the NBA is this big, ubiquitous global brand. But it wasn’t always that way. These guys made it that way.

Jeff Pearlman: That’s exactly what they did. When you go to an NBA game today and you see dance troupes and you see crazy halftime entertainment, and you see celebrities courtside, that’s all the Showtime Lakers. The modern NBA does not exist, as we know it, without that.

Brennan: That’s Jeff Pearlman. He literally wrote the book on Showtime.

Maddox: As in the book “Winning Time” is based on.

Brennan: This is Season 1 of “Binge Sesh.”

READ MORE >>> Jerry Buss’ obituary: Jerry Buss dies at 80; Lakers owner brought ‘Showtime’ success to L.A.

Maddox: I’m Kareem Maddox, resident basketball expert.

Brennan: And I’m Matt Brennan, TV buff.

Brennan: So, Kareem, I don’t actually really know that much about the NBA now, but I certainly know nothing about the NBA in 1979.

Maddox: Yeah. Well, I’m a basketball player, and I don’t even know that much about the NBA before 1979. But you know who does?

Brennan: Jeff Pearlman.

Maddox: Exactly. That’s why we drove down to Orange County to ask him.

Pearlman: I would compare the NBA before Jerry Buss to an empty shopping mall. Like, you know, when you go to a mall and it’s kind of a dead shopping mall and it’s sort of depressing and maybe there’s a Spencer Gifts open and there are two stores in the food court. Like, the NBA was an empty mall. It really was. The NBA was an empty mall.

Brennan: What Jeff said to us about “the NBA was an empty mall” actually reminded me of this major Jimmy Carter speech from that summer of ’79.

President Jimmy Carter, right, and Vice President Walter Mondale

President Carter and Vice President Walter Mondale share a victory salute on Nov. 3, 1980.

(Jim Wells/Associated Press)

[Archival clip: President Carter: Good evening. This is a special night for me.]

Brennan: I think if you listen to a little bit of it, you really get a sense of where America was mentally in the summer of 1979, and “empty mall” is an apt metaphor.

[Archival clip: Carter: The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America.]

Brennan: The “malaise” speech, also known as the “crisis of confidence” speech.

Maddox: There was a malaise over the country,

Brennan: Right, there was like a low energy. I mean, in a way it also describes what was happening in the NBA. I think it indicates why there was an audience for what Jerry Buss and Magic Johnson were about to build with the Lakers. They’re saying, “We need to make the product more exciting.”

In order to understand why an exciting product takes off, you need to understand what the audience is for that product. And the American people are the audience for the NBA. And the American people in this moment of long gas lines and high gas prices and stagflation — it’s actually kind of similar to what we’re going through right now, now that I say it. Things were not going well, and things were not moving forward. So the “crisis of confidence” sounds a lot to me like what’s going on in the NBA at this time.

Maddox: This period is exactly when Episode 1 of “Winning Time” begins. Jerry Buss — soon to be owner of the Lakers — is in heated talks with the old owner, Jack Kent Cooke, over getting the deal done.

And he describes the Lakers like this …

[“Winning Time” clip: Jerry Buss character: And then you’re going to have to find another buyer for a franchise in a league that most sane people think is sinking like a hard turd in a toilet.]

READ MORE >>> Lakers owner Jerry Buss brought ‘Showtime’ success to L.A.

Brennan: I want to know more about the composition of this hard turd. Like what specifically were the problems plaguing the NBA in 1979.

Maddox: So there were a ton, and Jeff outlined some of them for us.

Pearlman: It was just dead. And it was having a ton of drug problems and a ton of image problems. The NBA was a party league, still. There were parties everywhere. These guys all liked to party. Coke was the drug of parties back at the time; coke was it. It was a cocaine era.

These guys had money. If you’re a dealer, you would try to get athletes into it because you knew they could afford it. And a lot of these guys thought they could play with it and through it. It’s highly addictive. It spread super fast. And before long it just became — it was a huge problem in the NBA.

Maddox: Matt, let me read you this headline from an AP news article that was about the 75th anniversary of the NBA. It reads, “Fights, drugs and racial tension: ’70s spelled trouble for the NBA.”

Brennan: Yikes.

Maddox: Yeah, it was bad.

Reilly and Isaiah with Kirk Bovill, right, as Donald Sterling in

Reilly and Isaiah with Kirk Bovill, right, as future Clippers owner Donald Sterling in “Winning Time.”

(Warrick Page/HBO)

Brennan: The first episode of “Winning Time” hits the drug-culture piece pretty hard. You have that scene at the white party where Jerry Buss introduces Magic to Donald Sterling and those two models come up.

[“Winning Time” clip: Donald Sterling character: This is Sienna.

Magic Johnson character: Nice to meet you.

Donald Sterling character: And there we have Tasha.

Tasha character: Have some Champagne before the coke. It’s much better that way. ]

Maddox: So yeah, while that was an aggressive exchange —

Brennan: She shoots her shot!

Maddox: There was an L.A. Times article from 1980 that estimated between 40% and 75% of players in the NBA were using coke at the time. And this article has some incredible quotes. One was from a player that had just retired from the NBA the year before. And he says, quote, “Coke is rampant in the league, man. I mean, 75% use it. It’s like drinking water. You hit the blow (sniff cocaine) to be sociable.” But I don’t know why “sniff cocaine” is in parentheses there.

Brennan: L.A. Times style, man. Decent newspaper readers wouldn’t know what blow is. It’s a family publication, Kareem.

Maddox: Well, then, it’s interesting that they were covering the NBA at the time because the other thing that was happening a lot was just these massive fights — like brawls, street-style brawls — in the NBA Finals, even, around this time.

Brennan: I’m picturing like a hockey game, like, like punches-to-the-face-level fighting.

Maddox: It was bad. These were real ugly fights. In short, it wasn’t a family environment.

Brennan: It’s so funny to me to hear this because as a craven newspaper editor, my instinct is that this controversy, this salaciousness, would be like drawing fireflies to a lamp. So it surprises me that you’re telling me about coke-fueled brawls on court. But we also know that at this time, attendance at games was below the basement. Like 8,000 people per game.

Maddox: Wow. So basically no one was coming to watch these brawls.

Brennan: No. And no one was watching them on TV, either. Another thing that I learned was that the Showtime Lakers’ first championship series was preempted by reruns of “Dallas.” The ratings were so low that they would rather air a rerun of a prime-time soap opera than an NBA championship game, which seems completely inconceivable today.

Maddox: Oh, totally. I don’t even know what “Dallas” is. And was what I would have been watching instead of my Lakers win the championship in 1980?

READ MORE >>> Jerry Buss and Earvin Johnson made magic together

Brennan: Right. And I think actually the show kind of introduces this through the character of Frank Mariani —

[“Winning Time” clip: Mariani character: Come on, Jerry. Just take the night, all right? We’ll come back tomorrow.]

Brennan: — who was Jerry Buss’ business partner in their real estate empire, which is how Jerry Buss had the money to trade the Chrysler building — which is real — for the Lakers in the first place.

[“Winning Time” clip: Mariani character: You know, just think this through. We are trading in an empire of real estate for what, 12 tall guys in tennis shoes?]

Maddox: Oh, the guy that was trying to talk him out of buying the Lakers.

[“Winning Time” clip: Buss character: Frank Mariani, my business partner and personal wet blanket. He thinks this whole thing is a bad idea.

Mariani character: Bad? Try catastrophic. The entire league is on the verge of bankruptcy. There may not be an NBA in five years.]

Maddox: Spoiler alert, Matt: The NBA did survive those five years and still exists now. And in fact, I would say that $67.5-million purchase by Dr. Buss was actually pretty smart.

Brennan: What are the Lakers worth now?

Maddox: Today the Lakers are worth more than $5 billion.

Brennan: So that’s sort of how I feel about how I should have bought a house probably like 10 years ago, when I graduated from college.

Maddox: Or in 1975. Yeah. You would’ve been in good shape now.

Brennan: Oh, man. So Jerry Buss really got in on the ground floor of this massively successful business venture, which is now the modern NBA.

Maddox: Yeah. I mean, the cheapest team you can buy, if you had some extra cash lying around, would run you —

Brennan: I’m a journalist. I don’t have that much cash lying around.

Maddox: It would run you $1.5 billion. So you can check under your mattress. And to take it a step further, Jeff Pearlman says there’s a reason for that. And that reason is these Lakers.

Pearlman: And that’s not an exaggeration. Like sometimes people would be, like, they’ll B.S. their way through these interviews and they’ll say, well, you know, and it’s, like, kind of nonsense. There’s a direct, direct link to Jerry Buss, the Laker Girls, Magic Johnson’s arrival, Jack Nicholson and Dyan Cannon showing up and sitting courtside, and everything you see in the modern NBA.

When Jerry Buss came in, he wasn’t your traditional owner. He really was the first NBA owner to see this all as an entertainment venue. This was an entertainment business … and this was not a basketball business, it was an entertainment business. There’s a huge difference between the two. And, you know, from the very beginning of meeting Magic, you know this guy was an entertainer.

Two men hold a basketball

Magic Johnson and team owner Jerry Buss at the Forum on April 13, 1996.

(Mel Melcon/ Los Angeles Times)

There’s a scene I love, that they actually don’t use in the show. And I would say it’s my one objection. I don’t know how they let this thing go. It’s my favorite scene ever:

Magic comes to L.A. for the first time. And he’s driving. I think he’s in a limo or town car or something, but he’s being driven and he sees a tree with oranges growing on it. And he has the guy stop the car, he gets out of the car, and he picks an orange from the tree. And he’s like, “They grow fruit on trees. This is amazing.” He’s a guy from Michigan, you know? So he’s like, “This is amazing.”

I just think Jerry Buss really understood, like, we need to channel this. Like, this is more than just a really good basketball player. This is a guy who represents something and could really embody something that we were trying to sell. And when you’re a salesman and the perfect marketer comes along, I guess you just kind of know it. And he found him.

READ MORE >>> Could it be Magic? On Johnson’s induction into Hall of Fame

Brennan: It was just so clear to me from the outset that Jerry Buss recognized something in Magic Johnson that went beyond him being a great point guard. And I really wanted to understand what prepared Jerry Buss to see that. Because what made Dr. Buss special isn’t just that he understood what made a good NBA player. He understood what made a good NBA player a great salesman for the league.

Maddox: I imagine the conversation at the time was like, “Who’s better, Larry Bird or Magic Johnson?” And NBA executives are pulling their hair out, trying to figure that out. What Jeff Pearlman is saying, and what “Winning Time” is showing us, is that Jerry Buss never really cared to have that discussion because he’s like, “Magic has this magnetic personality that we can use to help build the Lakers.”

Jerry Buss was as interested in Magic for his personality and what he could do for the Lakers as a marketer as he was interested in him as a basketball player. And he turned out to be really good anyway.

Brennan: I think if you hear someone who watched Magic play live in these years talk about it and remember it, you get a sense of why Jerry Buss knew instinctively that Magic was the guy that he wanted to pick.

Pearlman: There’s this one play the Magic Johnson did. It’s super obscure. Right?

The Nets had a point guard named Pearl Washington. And Magic is driving down the lane one time. He’s coming down on Pearl, and Pearl was a horrible defensive point guard anyway. But he’s coming down on Pearl. Pearl’s planted, and Magic does this, like, look to the right, unfurls his arm, and just somehow whips it left. And I think it was Cooper slashing in and he just gets it to Cooper. And, and Pearl Washington is just frozen.

Magic is, it was almost like he was hovering above everything. It’s almost hard to explain. And it was so graceful and beautiful. When I think of Showtime, the first thing I think of is Magic Johnson driving in on Pearl Washington and just freezing him.

Maddox: Hearing Jeff talk about a simple no-look pass as if it’s this really innovative thing — I grew up in the ’90s and 2000s and everyone was doing no-look passes. It’s almost taught in textbooks now. Other people had done no-look passes before, but Magic Johnson made it really cool. And that’s one of the things that just added the flash and pizazz that Jerry Buss was looking for. That’s interesting to me.

Brennan: Kareem, I actually don’t know enough about Magic Johnson to know what made him specifically the generational talent we see in the show, and this is something everyone we talked to told us about him. So in your mind, what’s the first thing that I need to know about Magic Johnson as a point guard?

Maddox: Magic was, like, the first of his kind.

Pearlman: I mean the biggest thing is he was a 6-9 point guard, which didn’t exist. And there was a lot of concern. There was genuine, legitimate, understandable concern.

How is a 6-9 point guard going to go along in the NBA? You have all these point guards who are 6-feet, 6-1. So you’re a 6-foot-9 point guard. That means you have a higher dribble. How are you going to handle, how are you going to navigate against little tiny Archibalds coming up to you and trying to steal the ball?

And he was able to make it work. And that was a precursor for every Kevin Durant-type player you see today. The beginning was Magic Johnson. He’s going to be able to post up guards. We could play him all around. He can kind of reinvent the game. We can use him in different ways. And let’s just hope him dribbling against smaller guards will work, I guess was the biggest concern, but by far the biggest impact was just — he was the big point guard.

Maddox: I really do find that to be true. The operative word is “reinvent,” and I guess there was a reinvention because I just grew up and the NBA was the way it is — very similar to the way it is now, back in the ’90s and early 2000s. But all that was because Magic helped to reinvent the way the game is played.

Brennan: And Jerry Buss also sort of reinvented how the game was displayed and packaged and turned into this entertainment product that went beyond just hardcore basketball fans.

So I sort of think of Jerry Buss and Magic Johnson as this marriage made in basketball heaven or this chemical reaction that you can only get between these two particular people at this particular time. And it goes beyond basketball. They had real personal affinity for each other as well. And they shared some of the same interests, let’s say.

READ MORE >>> It was USC that made him Dr. Jerry Buss

Pearlman: The No. 1 thing they had in common is they liked the women. Also in a lot of ways, Jerry Buss kind of hitched the fortunes of the franchise to the actions of Magic Johnson. And I don’t know if it was 100% deliberate — it probably wasn’t — but he definitely saw Magic as sort of, he was the guy who was going to lead this team forward.

And the thing is Jerry Buss wasn’t like — there just aren’t many owners who want to hang out with their players. Jerry Buss liked going out with his players. He liked confiding in Magic Johnson. So I guess the two main things they had in common is their love of women and the nightlife, and this sort of desire to win. And also coming in at the same time. So it really felt like there was a partnership. There’s just a shared kinship.

Brennan: What drove him to want to be involved in professional sports? What, in your view, made him want to take that on?

Pearlman: Ah, lifestyle? I mean, I think it’s just lifestyle. Jerry Buss was a great owner, but he still had an enormous ego. And so many of these guys see it as a ticket to celebrity and fame. It’s one thing to be wealthy. It’s another thing to be wealthy and famous. Being a sports owner is a very select club, even in the NBA at that point. And I just think he was really enticed by the idea of sort of this level of celebrity and notoriety and fame and pizazz.

Brennan: He ends up buying the classic Hollywood home, Pickfair. Talk a little bit about the kind of social world that he built around him in the late ’70s through the ’80s.

Pearlman: I mean, Jerry Buss was getting laid often. In a lot of ways, Hugh Hefner was the model and Jerry Buss was the actuality. And Jerry Buss just really, truly did have these books filled with the pictures of the young women he was dating or had dated. And there was book after book after book, and there’d be women who were 10, 15, 20, 25, 30 years younger than he was.

He just really ate it up. He loved the spotlight. He loved the Forum Club, which became really his sort of castle. He loved escorting women on his, you know, oftentimes on both arms. They were always younger. He just ate it up, you know, he just ate it up.

You couldn’t be that today. There’s no chance. You could not be Jerry Buss today. No way. It just wouldn’t work.

[“Winning Time” clip: Buss character: I just paid for her sophomore year of college. Great gal. You want to meet her?

Johnson character: Uh, these ain’t round the way girls. Now, the ladies love Magic, but those are stars.

Buss character: Let me let you in on a little secret, Earvin: So are you.

Johnson character: Far out, man. Far out.]

READ MORE >>> Onetime Bel-Air home of Lakers legend Jerry Buss lists for $5.8 million

Maddox: I love that scene because it perfectly sums up how Showtime made these athletes stars.

Pearlman: I grew up in New York, in a small town called Mahopac, N.Y. Back then it wasn’t like you could watch any game at any time on TV. You would get select games, and the Lakers and the Celtics were the sort of big games that you’d see every now and then. And Brent Musburger would be broadcasting the games.

It would be a big deal, and when the Lakers were on, especially the Lakers, they would do these shots of the Forum. You’d come in; it’d be a wide shot of the Forum. And you’d see like the palm trees and it would always be sunny outside. And then they would show the Laker Girls, and they would show different celebrities. And then you’d see like Magic and you’d see Kareem and Coop and these different guys and Pat Riley with the greased-back hair.

It just felt really Southern California to me, and really Hollywood. And it was, it was magical. There was this team 3,000 miles away that played in this glorious land with these huge stars. It wasn’t something I could relate to except when I’d see it on TV. So my memories are just the Hollywood glow of that Showtime era.

Maddox: You know, Jeff is making me proud to be a Lakers fan and an Angeleno right now.

Brennan: I’m so excited to spend this season digging into the Hollywood glow that he’s talking about.

Maddox: Completely. I’m excited to get into that. You know, I might even teach you a sky hook if that’s something you want to learn.

Brennan: I actually don’t really know what a sky hook is. And you’re 6-8. I’m 5-9. I’m literally trying to conceive of the physics by which a 5-foot-9 person’s sky hook could do any kind of damage against someone who’s fully a foot taller than him.

Maddox: Let me give you a life hack. When someone named Kareem wants to teach you the sky hook, you just gotta say yes. You’re going to be great at it.

Hey, Matt, can you answer me something? What is a sand dab?

Brennan: It’s like a type of fish, I think.

Maddox: OK. Can I just look this up real quick?

Brennan: It’s like a little, um, it’s like a little sand dollar, but made of meat and not shell.

Maddox: Oh, both of its eyes are on the same side of its head. This is one of those fish that just lies on the bottom of the sand —

Brennan: Yeah, sand. It’s literally like a little dab atop the sand that they, I don’t know how they catch it. They, like, drag the bottom of the ocean for it. Then they toss it in, then they, like, put it in, you know, they flour it up. Then they put it in hot butter. Brown it.

I mean, if you’ve ever had sand dabs at — Musso and Frank is famous for their sand dabs. Which was like this era too. They’re not bad, but, like, I get why a 19-year-old kid who’s, like, in college wants to eat a cheeseburger and not sand dabs.

Maddox: I just am looking at this fish. I’m like, that’s an ugly fish. Better be tasty if you’re going to look like that.

Further reading

Jimmy Carter, “Energy and the National Goals: A Crisis of Confidence” (1979)

Earvin “Magic” Johnson with William Novak, “My Life” (1992)

John Papanek, “There’s an Ill Wind Blowing for the NBA,” Sports Illustrated (Feb. 1979)

Jeff Pearlman, “Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s” (2013)

The team

The “Binge Sesh” podcast was created by Matt Brennan. It’s hosted by Matt Brennan and Kareem Maddox; produced by Matt Brennan, Kareem Maddox and Alex Higgins; and edited by Lauren Raab. Theme music by Alex Higgins. Engineering by Mike Heflin and Alex Higgins. The executive producers are Jazmín Aguilera and Shani O. Hilton. Special thanks to Tova Weinstock, Alison Sneag, Julia Turner, Christian Stone and Village Workspaces.